A Virtual Immersion
On Christmas Day a friend of ours came for dinner, and afterwards we drove up to a shopping center in Northeast Washington DC to see a virtual Van Gogh exhibit that was billed as an “interactive immersion.” I have no idea what we paid to get in, as our friend had bought the tickets about a month before. One thing was for sure, it was definitely an extravaganza complete with dioramas, projections of paintings, and rather poor but dramatic reproductions of many of Van Gogh’s greatest works. It was kind of a Disneyland of Van Gogh. Now, that he is very palatable to the public 131+ years after his death by supposed suicide, the people are informed of his fame, and the art world is attuned to how to exploit this fame to the max for the ultimate gain and profit. Not that a penny every reached the artist himself. He lived a wretched life and went mad for it. Now we tout his virtues and the artist himself as one of the greatest painters in the early modern era who ever picked up a paint brush and stroked it vehemently across the canvas of his gargantuan genius. Nobody painted like him before or after, although he inspired many of the artistically inclined to march to the beat of their own internal drummer.
He had guts, of course, to pursue his craft of painting as he did, with the fervor of a man possessed. It is as though he was immersed in some atomic reality of matter, swirling up to the forefront of his vision, and translating it with the ladened and loaded strokes of pure and thick paint that he stratified and built up in the spectral layers of a conglomerate of paint—of his own purely subjective celebration. We are celebrating it still, and with more verve, vigor and vivaciousness than hardly seems fair to such a tortured soul when he was making the stuff. Van Gogh was resigned to oblivion. And this added to his immersion in the Cosmic Field. It is as though his eyes became the scope of a macrocosm of pulsing energy that welled up from the core of the Universe itself. And who but he gave it any relevance? Certainly he did, to the tune of painting or drawing every day for 10 years. He is said to have produced over 21OO works. That is about one every 41 hours or so. This output gives new meaning to the word “driven.”
When I say the reproductions were dramatic, I say that with a caveat that they were dramatized in a kind of monumentally thin and shallow way. Something about the texture of the work was utterly lost. A spectacle was made, for sure. People were impressed who would not normally be impressed upon. And they were fed a kind of amusement park pavilion in which an afternoon meander was taken in stride, toward a media hyperbole in a theatrical show of extravagantly projected hype. We ended up in a humongous cavern of football field proportions, immersed in 360 degrees of surround sound and pulsating projections of Van Gogh in a super iMax of graphic salutation. The most memorable part of that immersion was me wondering how long it would take for someone on the benches and chairs to get up and leave—so Sondra and I could sit down. It was an excruciating wait. After about 20 minutes of standing, that seemed like 2 hours of Stoic endurance of this immersion, we could sit together on the equivalent of a Van Gogh Park Bench and finally relax.
By then, the visual cycle had done a full turn, and the whole of the projected show began to repeat itself from the beginning scenes of Vincent’s early life. The projections were at times flowing so rapidly across the walls and the floor one almost got a case of vertigo just from the intense movements of rapid fire color. It was like being in a 1970’s disco with a millennial bend on a culturally correct virtual tapestry of holiday entertainment. There we were amidst it all. This was our Christmas. I am glad we did not buy the tickets. I would have felt ripped off. What a testament to giving artificial meaning to not only the sacredness of this day, but to the life of one who gave his last breath to the integrity of his craft. Exploited as Van Gogh’s life and work were in this virtual immersion, I resigned myself as well to a reverential appreciation for the actual man and his work, although through a media blitz of artificial disdain for what I was seeing and how I was seeing it.
One more huge inkjet print of a texturally well fought challenge to capture the sunlit effulgence in the fiery fields around Arles of Provence, not to mention its grossly out of proportion gargantuan size, was enough to make me want to run away and pretend I never saw such a thing. Maybe because I am a painter myself, and appreciate every stroke laid down on a surface, and the existential fortitude it takes to make just one more stroke as though one’s whole life is behind it—my disappointment was not only predictable, but inevitable. I might as well have stayed home, but nevertheless, I came to “be immersed,” more out of deference to our friend who was well meaning in her desire to enrich our day. We all thought we would like an immersion into something creative, something that most people never get even close to realizing in their own life. The extravagance of the spectacle never approaches the simplicity of the actual feat of truly creating. Something more humble takes place—and there was nothing humble about this “so-called immersion.” An illusion of an illusion can only give us an illusion, twice removed.
I could go on giving my points and counterpoints. They would not take away from the actual greatness of the paintings so honored. Yes, sidestepped in actuality amidst this exhibition. Going to see only one small original in the National Gallery of beloved Van Gogh, even in its humble scale of a couple square feet, gives me 1000 times more satisfaction than the immersion of visiting this media fiasco. I would walk up to the National Gallery from my house, past the century homes with their brick facades and flower laden front beds that are so real and touching. I arrive at the Temple of Great Works and find the particular gallery that houses a piece of the man himself. His hands touched this thing. The paint was mixed in the fervor of the moment. The strokes are as if indelibly incised in the forefront of history. I see this thing in the NOW, like it was done yesterday. And the Man is Present. No wonder I could not stomach the virtual immersion. I only want the real. I only want to see exactly what Van Gogh saw—not some 21st Century entrepreneur’s money making sleight of hand and concoction of the lens and inkjet print to fool us into thinking we have been immersed in Vincent’s world. We have not been immersed in it. We have been fooled into yet more distraction and entertainment, into yet more of the shallowness of our media overloaded existences.
I would travel across continents to see a painting that touched my soul. And I have actually done so, literally. I took a train to Colmar, France, to see Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece once, in the flesh, so to speak. I flew to Bavaria to see Dürer’s House and workshop in Nuremberg. I would not step one centimeter toward another “virtual immersion.” God bless you all for trying. And perhaps you are enriched more than you were before. When I hit the “coloring book” room where the people were sitting with bunches of crayons coloring in the line cartoons of famous Van Gogh works to be tacked up on the wallpaper of “high art entertainment,” I could not run fast enough out the door to the car. What can I say? Not my cup of tea. GIVE ME THE REAL THING, ONLY!
My teacher’s teacher, Philip Guston, said, “I wanted to paint like the first man.” He took a stick and scrawled something truly elegant onto the cave wall, and was inwardly transformed in the process. This is what it feel like, folks. And it feels like nothing I saw in the “virtual immersion.” I suppose I should stop here. And by the way, the friend of ours who came for Christmas dinner called us the next day and said, “Oh, I thought you might like to know, I have Covid.” Within the week we had it too! The presents for Christmas 2021 were definitely unforgettable. Om Namah Shivay!